How to write a quote in an essay
“A man should look for what is, and not for what he thinks should be,” Einstein quoted. If you’re familiar with the use of outside sources, you can tell what’s wrong with this quotation. It illustrates a common error found in essays. Students are often asked to use quotations from outside sources. But all too often, they don’t have a clear understanding of what a quotation is for. Or how to integrate it smoothly into an essay.
Just following a few simple principles will improve your use of quotations (usually shortened to “quotes”).
When is a quote appropriate?
Before selecting an appropriate passage, it is important to know its purpose. In a researched essay, it is there to support the points you have made.
In a book, you may find a quote placed at the beginning of a chapter. It supports the theme of that chapter, but it could be removed and the ideas would still stand. This type of quote is known as a “stand-alone” quote, and it does just that. It is there for artistic or inspirational purposes.
You may find a similar technique used in magazine articles. A few important words are lifted from the body of the article. They are reproduced in larger print, often in a different color or font. These are known as “call out boxes.” Their purpose is to attract the attention of a prospective reader.
These examples are not what your English teacher is looking for in an essay. Nor is she necessarily looking for something quoted by the author of an article. She is no doubt looking for something noteworthy you found in your research on the topic.
Who said it?
Students often turn to sources such as BrainyQuote.com for their quotes. This can be a good way to track down who made a particular statement. But for a researched essay, it’s not necessary to use a famous person’s words.
What's important is to find a person who is knowledgeable about your subject.
Read any newspaper article and you’ll see this principle in action. The reporter on the beat isn’t interviewing famous people—unless they’ve done something newsworthy. He or she locates the eye witness, the victim, or, if possible, the perpetrator of the action.
Why should I listen to this person?
It is up to you, as the writer/researcher to show your source’s credentials. The source may have a title that establishes his or her authority: president, dean, detective, officer, director. Sometimes that’s enough. But more than likely you’ll need to show the person’s sphere of influence. Which university or company? Which law enforcement agency? Which research institute? How does the expertise relate to your essay?
This step doesn’t require a lengthy bio. Just a word or two may be enough to identify your source’s qualifications: Miles Harrington, Ph.D., head of Coastal University’s marine lab . . . , or Marinela Garza, mother of two, witness to the school explosion . . . . Each person has a logical connection to the facts or events you are describing. But your reader won’t know that unless you provide the connection.
Can I quote a friend?
Is your best friend an expert in computer software? Did your mother participate in breakthrough research? Has your cousin provided security in the White House? Do any of these accomplishments relate to the subject you’re writing about?
If you can answer yes to these questions, it’s possible that quoting a person close to you makes sense. But don’t let a late-night discussion with Dad substitute for the research you were assigned. If you decide to use one of these personal sources, treat it as an interview and cite it accordingly.
How do I work in the quote?
Making the quotation flow with the rest of your essay can be a challenge. It is extremely important to distinguish between what you have to say and what comes from your source. Failure to make this distinction can result in the crime of “accidental plagiarism.” Okay, technically it isn’t a crime, but it must be taken seriously.
Find or create a list of words or phrases that can be used to set up a quote. It is acceptable to just say, “Schroeder said” or “Garza said,” but the repetition quickly becomes annoying. Use words or phrases such as reported, observed, noted, emphasized.
Past or present?
In normal conversation we use past tense to refer to events that have already happened. In formal writing, the present is often used. This is especially true of written material: the study points out, the author believes. This is known as the historic present.
Is it a good fit?
A quote should always sound like it belongs. If your assignment calls for five quotes, they should flow seamlessly within your essay. A quote should never feel as though it has been simply dropped in because one was required. Try to spread the quotes throughout the essay.
Use the correct format
Academic essays are written according to a specific format, called a “style sheet.” The most common are MLA and APA. They have detailed instructions that show how to set up and punctuate your quote. Be sure to carefully use the style sheet your instructor indicates.
Enough is enough
Quotes sometimes seem like a good way to expand your word count. Resist the temptation. Never use a 100 words if five will do. Don’t string a series of quotes together without including your own commentary. The quotations are there to support your points. Don’t use them as a substitute for your own words.
And, finally . . .
In case you’re wondering about the Einstein quote, here’s the explanation. Einstein didn’t quote this phrase. He is the one who originally made the statement. Once another person—including you—repeats a noteworthy statement, it becomes a quotation. Think about it. Einstein didn’t have to quote anyone. He knew more than anyone else, so everybody else quoted him.